For most of the past decade, Fritz Scholder has been among the biggest art guns living and operating in the region. Next to Georgia O’Keeffe, he has painted perhaps the boldest, most vigorous and memorable images to ever come out of the Southwest. But seemingly as fast as collectors and museums have snapped up his work, tongues have wagged about Scholder topics, from influences on his work to the number of pints of Indian blood in his veins. He talked candidly last month with ARTlines’ Lisa Sherman, who interviewed him as he breakfasted at Albuquerque’s Frontier Restaurant, and later as he signed lithographs at the Tamarind Institute.
Your most recent show in Santa Fe was quite a departure from your previous work. The figures were darker, less literal; the impact was less Indian, somehow. Are you off in a new direction?
The last Santa Fe show, which I ambiguously called Indian Land, was a transitional exhibition from the Indian series I’d been doing for some time to the new work in my current Los Angeles show, in which the break is complete. It’s become a whole different thing.
What was the ambiguity of Indian Land?
It was the last, or . . . how shall I say, epitome of the Indian series. I was wrapping it up. Indian Land referred to the whole environment. The figure was there, but the land itself was as important as, if not more important than, the figure. I didn’t know it would develop into American Portraits (shown at the Justin Lester Gallery, Los Angeles), another title that is somewhat ambiguous. You know, I never really know what’s going to happen next, but I’ve felt for the last few years that something different was evolving, something that would, in a way, become a major new statement. American Portraits has to do with the figure in a state of flux, in an environment that’s also in a state of flux.
Are the portraits autobiographical?
All my work is. The American Portraits combine a lot of my ideas and philosophies about what’s happening to me, personally, and to the world at large. The figures are . . . they’re kind of symbols of the figure. They’re not as literal as before. There’s a certain mystery and magic, an element of androgyny, figures going into animal or bird things. It’s always surprising to me to see what happens in a painting.
In the Indian series, most of the figures were male. It just happened that way, I didn’t plan it. But now I feel . . . I hate the word unisex . . . I think the androgynous figure is the strongest one. We think of warriors as being male, I always have. But now the real warrior is both male and female. Every great person I’ve met, it’s been very evident in them. Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, and Jacob Bronowski, who wrote The Ascent of Man and who I had the pleasure of knowing before he died.
You work in a number of mediums, and recently you’ve done a lot of monotypes. How did you get into them?
I think one brings to any new medium one’s whole frame of reference of whatever mediums one has been working with. I’d known about monotypes for a long time, but it was Nathan Oliveira who really turned me on to them about two-and-a-half years ago. Once I started, I fell in love with the process, and monotypes became a very important part of my work. I’ve always been open to new mediums. I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and often I find that one medium can express an idea better than another. You see, it’s not just a matter of painting. For me, it’s a whole lifestyle. Once you establish yourself, you have the freedom to do anything you want. I always paint for myself. I have to, because I’m alone in the studio, and no one’s going to tell me what to do, and that’s the nice thing about being in the arts, or at least being a painter. It affords you that kind of freedom. But there is a great responsibility that goes along with freedom. Freedom is not free. You have to be tough on yourself, and I’ve always been my own worst critic. On the other hand, I learned long ago not to worry about what others say. You just can’t. When you get to a certain position, you become a target, and everybody is going to be at you. But if you know what you’re doing, that’s what counts. I’ve always known what I was doing, and it’s a good feeling.
How do you feel about success? What’s it like?
I have to constantly reevaluate what’s happening. Success can be very dangerous to an artist. However, I think there is one misconception today in the art world – a lot of people still look at success as a bad thing. Success will change one. It’s bound to. You can’t have success and stay the same, but you can handle it in an intelligent way. For the painter, the main thing is you must keep your own integrity. If you sell out, then you’re denying the exact role of the artist, which is freedom. If you’re not being your own person, then you’re just fooling yourself. I’ve always been aware of this, and I’ve seen many people really fall under success. I’ve seen a lot of young talent, for instance, stifled before they become mature talent. It’s happening a lot around here, simply because art is in, art is a big business. Dealers are jumping on minor talents and trying to make them major before their time, and not giving them a chance to see what’s going to happen to their work. Once a young painter starts selling for big money, it’s a tremendous trap, a dangerous area to be in. I’ve felt that I’ve had things to say about whatever subject I’ve been attracted to, and yet I’ve always put subject matter third in importance. Color is the main thing in painting, that’s what makes painting different from any other medium. I get turned on by color, I consider myself a colorist. I think the second most important thing is to produce a strong image. I’ve always tried to produce a new visual experience for the viewer. I think this is a responsibility for the artist. Why do a landscape that looks like everyone else’s landscape? In Taos, where I just do landscapes, it is a real challenge because, as you know, so many painters are drawn to that area because of the beautiful golden light of Taos and all that jazz. A tremendous romanticism has been built up in Taos. To approach the Taos landscape, the mountains, and try to do it in your own way, is a real challenge. I feel I’m doing it.
In the documentary done some time ago on you and your work, there was a scene of you, painting in your studio, and I could almost see a massive flow of energy from you onto the canvas. It also appeared that you were in a trance state. What are you feeling when you paint?
I think the main thing for any painter is the activity. Everyone works differently, I happen to have great energy and I’ve developed certain habits, almost like Pavlov’s dog, when I walk into the studio. I turn on rock music, real loud, and immediately that establishes a field of energy. I have canvases or paper waiting for me and I just jump into it. I love the action of it. In my developing years, the action painting in New York was in, and that’s part of my thing, I’m sure. I love to see what paint does, I like to rub it and mess with it and blot it and use anything I have – rags, or my hand. The main thing is to get into the paint and the color. One color by itself isn’t very interesting, it’s when you get the second and third color next to it that things start to happen. It’s a real turn-on, the paint is buttery, the brush is flexible, the canvas moves when you touch it. That’s what I like. When it’s finished, it’s almost as if you had been in a trance, because you stand away and look at it, and you really kind of wonder. You never really know how it’s going to turn out, you don’t want to, because then there’d be no use doing it. Once it’s done, if you feel good about it, you let it out.
Once it’s let out of the studio, then it goes into a whole different realm – the realm of the viewer, the collector, the entrepreneur, the publisher, all that, out into the bad world. And you have to protect your work when it leaves. I was ripped off badly in the beginning, several times, and so I got smart fast. Now, I make very definite demands and I have definite prerequisites for the dealers that represent me.
You’ve made some gallery changes lately, and there was a rumor that the Marlborough Gallery in New York wanted to represent you. What’s happening?
The Marlborough Gallery wanted every scrap of paper I touched, and I couldn’t do that. I don’t like exclusivity. It’s limiting, and, in a way, it’s selling your soul to the devil. By having several galleries that I’m able to work well with, I’m able to protect my work. I just left Elaine Horwitch, and went to Marilyn Butler in Scottsdale, mainly because of ideological differences, though Elaine and I are still friends. It wasn’t anything sudden, it had been coming on for a year or so. I thought her gallery was growing in a way that wasn’t advantageous to me. But, too, I felt I needed a change. As in the work, sometimes you have to force a change, precipitate a crisis, to make something happen.
Do you think of yourself as being controversial?
I’m often called controversial, and it always surprises me, because what I do seems, to me at least, completely natural, obvious, self-evident. Though, in a way I guess I do know why I’m called controversial: I’m a very honest person, and I have definite ideas on everything, and this threatens people. When I’m asked something, I usually answer, and the answers often aren’t what people are wanting to hear, I guess.
Lately, there have been a lot of dark, death-like presences in your work. You’ve painted Egyptian sarcophaguses, the Sioux Burial prints. Are you consciously starting to confront death in your work?
Yes, of course. I think every artist as he gets older has to make his statement about that. I’ve always been very aware of it, and finally gotten enough nerve to start putting it down, although often it’s been rather abstract. I’m getting more introspective, and I’m also feeling more of my strength, and I honestly think my work is better than ever. I’ve made the statement that I only started to paint when I turned forty. It’s kind of crazy to put an exact date on it, because I did a few good things before that, but I really feel that. It sounds real simplistic, but one day in the studio I was having difficulty with a painting; I sat down and looked at it, and the thought came to me that I couldn’t make a mistake, no way, because it’s my painting and if I don’t like it, I can scrape it or paint over it, or wipe it out, or do something, but it’s mine. It’s all up to me, I can’t make any excuses, but I can do it. At certain ages, I think things get much clearer.
That makes me think back to what you said about the activity of painting. Do you feel magical when that clarity is happening?
Yes, and this is strange to me, even being the egomaniac that I am. At times, I’m terribly surprised at what I can do. It’s almost as if I’m not doing it. Many artists have felt that way. There are great quotes . . . Paul Klee, when he was asked how do you draw, said, “I follow my fingers.” It’s almost like that at times. It’s automatic writing, it just happens.
You’ve said that you work with clichés and try to transcend them. Can you explain that?
The Indian is one of the most loaded subjects in this country, especially in the Southwest. It’s been a complete cliché, so romanticized, and everyone thought that they were experts on the Indian. But in fact most people didn’t even know anything about the Indian. I was at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, a member of the faculty, and at first I was put off because everyone was doing the Indian. I realized that it was so dumb, that someone needed to do it differently, so I started the series. I did a number of Indians wrapped in the flag and people thought I was trying to show a patriotic Indian. When in reality, historically, surplus flags were sent from Washington to the reservations for no reason. They didn’t know what to do with them, so they gave them to the old chiefs, who made them part of their religion. They knew the decorative value of the flag long before the hippies did. When I put things like that on canvas, people thought, “Is he trying to make some big political statement?” I wasn’t just trying to say anything. I was just trying to put them down in some kind of context that was real for a change, get through the clichés. And I became very controversial and, because of that, very known, and I accidentally became the leader of a new Indian art movement. It had nothing to do with me, really, I just happened to be there at a particular time. I had a unique perspective. But everyone got confused and started labeling me as the New Indian Artist . I am part Indian, but in fact I grew up non-Indian. But no one can be an Indian if you’re only one-quarter Indian. You can’t be anything more or less than what you are.
I take it you like what you are doing?
I feel very happy to have the life I have, to be able to take my craziness and make it function in society. I’m completely crazy. I’ve learned how to control it and act like a normal person and be civilized, but I’m nuts. If I couldn’t go paint and use up some of my energy, I’d be out shooting people in the streets or something.
What do you think are the greatest misconceptions that people have about you?
First of all, that I’m an Indian artist. Another thing that disappoints me is the criticism that, in one way or another, I’ve sold out. That idea makes me very sad, because if there’s one thing I’ve never done my whole life, is sell out. I have always done exactly what I wanted to do, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what’s happened to me. At one time I was very sensitive to criticism or to what I heard. There are so many rumors, the things I hear about myself are just incredible. I’m surprised that people don’t have anything better to talk about. But you learn that all of that has to be transcended because you can’t control what people think. All you can do is do what you have to do. There will always be those who will hate, those who will be confused, and those who will love you.
Lisa Sherman, January 1981